PSYCHEDELIC DREAMS Lyon’s “Sound and Light.”
The lousy economy hit home this year as Stairwell Gallery in Providence and Yes Gallery in Warren closed their doors. RISD Museum cut staff and director Hope Alswang was fired . . . I mean, suddenly resigned over undisclosed differences with president John Maeda. In November, beloved Coventry painter Maxwell Mays died. The charm of his Rhode Island landscapes, as seen at Providence Art Club in September, remind us why especially in gloomy times we turn to art. So here are the highlights of 2009.
• THINKING BIG
In August, Providence artist Michael Bizon, who recently decamped for Los Angeles, filled 5 Traverse with a wall of speakers the seemed like some altar to the gods of music. And he invited visitors on an art treasure hunt that ended at a curious woodland hermit art shack. It was just one of the wonders presented at the Providence gallery, which consistently presents solo shows of some of the finest art produced hereabouts, including this year Bizon, Lisa Perez's quiet biomorphic abstractions, and Scott Lapham's sensuous landscape photos. But in '09, 5T mapped major aspects of the local scene, from the digital art hoedown "Pixilerations" (which Maya Allison, who joined 5T as gallery director late last year, organizes), to "Book As a Post Modern Medium," charting the central place of artist books here, to "Collective Access," rounding up works from AS220's print shop. It's a sign of increasing ambition from the gallery, and perhaps for Rhode Island art.
• THRONE ROOM
"Marcel Breuer: Design and Architecture" at the RISD Museum was a striking retrospective of a 20th-century master. The highlight was a chorus line of Breuer's (1902-1981) famous chairs, from slinky molded plywood chaise lounges to his signature S-curve tubular steel chairs that still seem futuristic.
• SOLO ACT
MARVELOUS Hassenfeld’s paper confections.
The economy has left Brown University's Bell Gallery down a curator, but you wouldn't know it from the shows that director Jo-Ann Conklin presents on her own. Recent marvels range from Kirsten Hassenfeld's giant paper confections to RISD prof Rachel Berwick's tree full of orange copal ghosts of extinct passenger pigeons (through February 14).
• SEEING THINGS
Natalie Purkey and Haley O'Connor did many amazing things at Stairwell Gallery, but what we'll most miss while they transition from their Broadway space to independent curating is their gallery-transforming installations. Before Raphael Lyon left Providence for New York this year (come back!), he filled the darkened room with a hollow crystal tree trunk with a glowing, watching dragon eye floating inside, under a constellation of purple stars. It was a place of psychedelic dreams.
Gallery Z's "Video Art Exhibition" provided a primer on the genre in Providence since the '70s. Impressive in its scope, it also dared one of the large art institutions in town to more deeply plum Ocean State tech art.
C.W. Roelle's exhibit "Not Just Women In White Dresses" as AS220's Project Space featured his trademark old-timey scenes that also fool with our sense of depth. His art is a remarkable sleight of hand, bending simple black wire into something resembling pen drawings floating in thin air. Also notable at AS220 was RISD teacher Liz Collins's Doll Cave, which filled the gallery with knit spiderwebs encasing eerie baby dolls.